Zoroastrians in Iran

Zoroastrians are the oldest religious community of Iran. Prior to the Islamization of Iran, which was followed by the Muslim invasion, Zoroastrianism was the primary religion of the nation.

According to the country's official census, there were 25,271 Zoroastrians within the country in 2011.[1][2]


There are no written records from Zarathushtra's time. The earliest surviving written references to Zarathushtra are those of Greek writers from 1000 BC. Prophet Zoroaster and his first followers have been the proto-Indo-Iranians that lived between the Bronze Age and Iron Age (est. 1200-600 BC).[3]:1 The term "Prophet" is of western origin as Zarathushtra is designated "Khordad" or that unique mortal who achieved spiritual perfection (he radiated an aura-"Khor") within his lifetime. The term "Za-rath-ush-tra" also translates to a Divine (Zari/Hari) Chariot (Rath) that brought heavenly Light-Knowledge (Ushtra)

The time of the Iranian peoples' migration to Iran can be mainly estimated through Assyrian records.[3]:48 Also, Herodotus (I, 101) had recalled one of the Mede tribes to be called "Magoi", better known as "Magis", a tribe known to have included many priests, who served both Medes and Persians. By the time of the Median empire (est. 612 BC), Zoroastrianism is known to have been well established in both Pars region (later capital of Persia) as well as in the Eastern regions.[3] :49

Achaemenid dynasty

Main article: Achaemenid dynasty

Persians led by Cyrus the Great soon established the second Iranian dynasty, and the first Persian empire by defeating the Medes dynasty in 549 BC.[3]:49 As Persians expanded their empire, Zoroastrianism was introduced to Greek historians such as Hermodorus, Hermippus, Xanthos, Eudoxus and Aristotle; each giving a different date regarding the life of Zoroaster but naturally believed him to be a Persian prophet and called him "Master of the magi"[3]

Although there are no inscriptions left from the time of Cyrus about his religion, the fire-altars found at Pasargadae, as well as the fact that he called his daughter Atossa, name of the queen of Vishtaspa (Zoroaster's royal patron), suggests that he indeed may have been a Zoroastrian.[3]

However, it is clear that by the time of Darius the Great (549 BC– 485/486 BC), the empire was clearly in favour of Zoroastrianism. Darius declares in one of his inscriptions that:

"A great God is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king over many, one lord over many"[3]


Main article: Persepolis

Persepolis (or Parsa) was one of the four capitals of the Achaemenid empire, built by Darius the Great and his son Xerxes; it was a glorious city known to the world as the "richest city under the sun". It was also the trading capital of the Near East.

One of the main functions of Persepolis was to serve as the host of the ancient Zoroastrian festival, Norouz. Therefore, every year representatives from each country under the rule of Persia would bring gifts to Persepolis to show their loyalty to the king and the empire.

Arsacid dynasty

Main article: Parthians

Sassanid dynasty

Main article: Sasanians

The Sassanid dynasty (224-651 AD) was the first Persian empire which declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion and promoted the religion more than ever. It is believed that Avesta (a compilation of Zoroastrian sacred texts) was first gathered and put together at this time.

During the period of their centuries long suzerainty over the Caucasus, the Sassanids made attempts to promote Zoroastrianism there with considerable successes, and it was prominent in the pre-Christian Caucasus (especially modern-day Azerbaijan).

Due to its ties to the Christian Roman Empire, Persia's arch-rival since Parthian times, the Sassanids were suspicious of Roman Christianity, and after the reign Constantine the Great sometimes persecuted it.[4] The Sassanid authority clashed with their Armenian subjects in the Battle of Avarayr (451 CE), making them officially break with the Roman Church. But the Sassanids tolerated or even sometimes favored the Christianity of the Persian Church. The acceptance of Christianity in Georgia (Caucasian Iberia) saw the Zoroastrian religion there slowly but surely decline,[5] but as late the 5th century AD it was still widely practised as something like a second established religion.[6][7]

Prophet Mani

Main article: Mani (prophet)


The prophet Mani was an Iranian of noble Parthian roots who established Manichaeism which contained many elements of Zoroastrianism as well as Gnosticism, however it saw the experience of life on earth by humans as miserable, which was a contrast to the Zoroastrian view which was to celebrate life through happiness.

Mani was received kindly by king Shapur I and spent many years at his court where he was protected during all of Shabuhr's reign. However Mani wrote in a semitic language (Syriac Aramaic), and all his work had to be translated into Middle Persian by his followers, who rendered the name of Mani's supreme god as Zurvan and called him the father of Ohrmazd[8] (Ahuramazda, God of Wisdom, main deity of Zoroastrianism).


Main article: Zurvanism

Although the origins of Zurvanite Zoroastrianism are unclear, it was during the Sassanid period that it gained widespread acceptance, and many of the Sassanid emperors were at least to some extent Zurvanites. Zurvanism enjoyed royal sanction during the Sassanid era but no traces of it remain beyond the 10th century.

Unlike Mazdean Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism considered Ahura Mazda not the transcendental Creator, but one of two equal-but-opposite divinities under the supremacy of Zurvan. The central Zurvanite belief made Ahura Mazda (Middle Persian: Ohrmuzd) and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) twin brothers that had co-existed for all time.

Non-Zoroastrian accounts of typically Zurvanite beliefs were the first traces of Zoroastrianism to reach the west, which misled European scholars to conclude that Zoroastrianism was a dualist faith.

The Zoroastrian cult of Zurvan should not be confused with the Manichaeism's use of the name Zurvan in Middle Persian texts to represent the Manichean deity of light. Mani had himself introduced this practice (for perhaps political reasons) in his Shapurgan, which he dedicated to his patron Shapur II. For much of the rest of the Sassanid era, the Manichaens were a persecuted minority, and Mani was sentenced to death by Bahram I.

Calendar reforms

Main article: Zoroastrian calendar

Sacred fires

Main article: Atar
Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd

The three great sacred fires of Persia at the time of the Sassanids were the Adur Farnbag, Adur Gushnasp and the Adur Burzen-Mihr which burnt in Pars, Media and Parthia respectively. Of these three the Adur Burzen-Mihr was the most sacred fire as it was linked to the prophet Zarathustra himself and king Vishtaspa.[9]

Mazdakite movement

Main article: Mazdak


Main article: Avesta

Arab conquest and under the Caliphate

The Muslim conquest of Persia, also known as the Arab conquest of Iran[2] led to the end of the Sasanian Empire in 651 and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran. Arabs first attacked the Sassanid territory in 633, when general Khalid ibn Walid invaded Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq), which was the political and economic center of the Sassanid state.[3] Following the transfer of Khalid to the Roman front in the Levant, the Muslims eventually lost their holdings to Iranian counterattacks. The second invasion began in 636 under Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, when a key victory at the Battle of Qadisiyyah led to the permanent end of Sasanian control west of Iran. The Zagros mountains then became a natural barrier and border between the Rashidun Caliphate and the Sassanid Empire. Owing to continuous raids by Persians into the area, Caliph Umar ordered a full invasion of the Sasanian Iranian empire in 642, which was completed with the complete conquest of the Sasanians around 651.a[›] The quick conquest of Iran in a series of well coordinated multi-pronged attacks, directed by Caliph Umar from Medina several thousand kilometres from the battlefields in Iran, became his greatest triumph, contributing to his reputation as a great military and political strategist.[4]

Iranian historians have sought to defend their forebears by using Arab sources to illustrate that "contrary to the claims of some historians, Iranians, in fact, fought long and hard against the invading Arabs."[5] By 651, most of the urban centers in Iranian lands, with the notable exception of the Caspian provinces and Transoxiana, had come under the domination of the Arab armies. Many localities in Iran staged a defense against the invaders, but in the end none was able to repulse the invasion. Even after the Arabs had subdued the country, many cities rose in rebellion, killing the Arab governor or attacking their garrisons, but reinforcements from the caliphs succeeded in putting down all these rebellions and imposing the rule of Islam. The violent subjugation of Bukhara after many uprisings is a case in point. Conversion to Islam was, however, only gradual. In the process, many acts of violence took place, Zoroastrian scriptures were burnt and many mobads executed.[6] Once conquered politically, the Persians began to reassert themselves by maintaining Persian language and culture. Regardless, Islam was adopted by many, for political, socio-cultural or spiritual reasons, or simply by persuasion (read: force) , and became the dominant religion

Mongol empire

The Mongol invasion of Iran resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and ruined many cities. The early Mongol invaders were, however, pagans or Buddhists so most of their attention was directed towards Muslims, whom they hated. However, within half a century of the conquest, the leader of the Il-Khanate, Ghazan Khan, became a Muslim, which did not help the status of Zoroastrians in Iran. However, by the time that the Mongols were expelled, Pars province had escaped major damages and the Zoroastrians moved to the North of Pars mainly in the regions of Yazd and Kerman,[10] where even today the main Zoroastrian communities are found.

Safavid dynasty

Shiite Safavid dynasty destroyed what was once a vibrant community of Zoroastrians, adherents of the pre-Islam religion of Iran. As per the official policy, Safavids wanted everyone to convert to the Shia sect of Islam and killed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, Zoroastrians and other minorities when they refused to follow these orders.

Majority of Zoroastrians also left for India though about 20% remained; most of whom had to migrate in the late 19th century as Qajar dynasty imposed greater restrictions on them.

Qajar dynasty

A Zoroastrian family in Qajar Iran. Circa 1910.

During the Qajar Dynasty, religious persecution of the Zoroastrians was rampant. Due to the increasing contacts with influential Parsi philanthropists such as Maneckji Limji Hataria, many Zoroastrians left Iran for India. There, they formed the second major Indian Zoroastrian community known as the Iranis.

Modern history

Pahlavi dynasty

Starting from the early twentieth century, Tehran, the nation's capital, experienced rapid migrations from all Iranian minorities. The Zoroastrian population increased from about 50 merchants in 1881 to 500 by 1912.[11]

During the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, Zoroastrians changed from being one of the most persecuted minorities in Iran to a symbol of Iranian nationalism.[12] This notion carried on all the way through the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Ayatollah Sadughi proclaimed that "We Muslims are like the branches of a tree, if our roots are cut off, we shall shrivel up and die", also the last prime minister before the revolution Shapour Bakhtiar held an anti-Ayatollah Khomeini meeting in Los Angeles, California on the day of the Zoroastrian Mehregan festival (1980), in tribute to "true nationalism"[12] (See Iranian nationalism).


The establishment of an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1979 posed many setbacks for Iran's religious minorities. Since that time many Zoroastrians, aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society program, have emigrated to the US, as well as to Canada, Australia, and the UK. Together with the issues of out-marriage and low birth rates, this is leading to a steady decline in Iran's Zoroastrian population[13] which, according to Iran's 2012 census results, currently stands at 25,271, though this represents an increase of 27.5% on the 2006 population[14]

Like the Armenian, Assyrian and Persian Jewish communities, Zoroastrians are officially recognized and on the grounds of the 1906 Constitution allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament, currently held by Esfandiar Ekhtiari Kassnavieh.[15]

Important Zoroastrians in the 20th century:

See also


  1. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 19, 2013. Retrieved December 10, 2013.
  2. Iran is young, urbanised and educated: census, AFP, The National
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Mary Boyce "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices"
  4. Wigram, W. A. (2004), An introduction to the history of the Assyrian Church, or, The Church of the Sassanid Persian Empire, 100–640 A.D, Gorgias Press, p. 34, ISBN 1593331037
  5. Dr Stephen H Rapp Jr. The Sasanian World through Georgian Eyes: Caucasia and the Iranian Commonwealth in Late Antique Georgian Literature Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 28 sep. 2014. ISBN 1472425529 p 160
  6. Ronald Grigor Suny. The Making of the Georgian Nation Indiana University Press, 1994 ISBN 0253209153 p 22
  7. Roger Rosen, Jeffrey Jay Foxx. The Georgian Republic, Volume 1992 Passport Books, 1992 p 34
  8. Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the early Sassanians
  9. Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the mid Sassanid period
  10. Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the Caliphs
  11. Hukht (1973)
  12. 1 2 Janet Kestenberg Amighi "Zoroastrians of Iran, Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence" pp. 143
  13. Richard Foltz, “Zoroastrians in Iran: What Future in the Homeland?” Middle East Journal 65/1 (2011): 73-84.
  14. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on November 16, 2015. Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  15. Press TV - Results for the minority MPs Archived February 15, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.

Further reading

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